Friday, October 22, 2021

"The Plantagenets" by Dan Jones--Nonfiction Review

For this review, we’re taking a deep dive into English history with “The Plantagenets,” written by Dan Jones. It’s a book about early English Kings and the royal family that surrounded them.

What I love about this book:

This is the third book by Dan Jones I’ve read, and I absolutely adore how he tells history. He captured my attention because he’d taken the time to flesh out each historical figure with who they were, what their strengths and weaknesses were, what their ambitions were, and what their family was like around them.

He also takes the time to highlight how certain Kings were tied to popular myth, like Richard the Lionheart and his younger brother John, King of England. Both Kings were prominent side characters in most versions of the legend of Robin Hood—in some, Robin even goes crusading with Richard. John was presented as more of a vicious idiot in the myth. In the actual history presented by Jones, John was undoubtedly vicious but wasn’t exactly an idiot. He was more short-sighted.

A lot of this book reads like a generational family drama novel. Presenting the book that way, Jones helped cement for me who, when, where, and under what circumstances these people lived. I found it fascinating how the descendants of Kings had their lives shaped and directed by circumstances informed by their ancestors long before they ever took over and ruled for themselves. Then watching over the years covered in this book as they either rose to the occasion and ruled well or… not so well.

What I don’t love about this book:

Maybe this is because I’m an American and Jones is British, but I found him a little too enamored with his subjects—at times. The only Kings I like are in fantasy books, and in reality, I feel the only good King is a deposed King. For me, Kings and Queens, Emperors and Empresses, are just dictators who typically have God complexes. I’m vehemently against anything that sounds like a right to rule is a birthright and that some people are just super extra awesome because they had the right incestuous parents.

Narratively this book subtly shows its hand revealing a preference for one King over another and genuine like for some. The first part I can understand—I guess—the second not at all. 

A thing I just generally don’t like about history and isn’t specific with this book is how long we as a species played along with this game of; that some people, by virtue of their station in society, are just special. We, as the un-special, are not only required to regard them as such but to also love them. And we’re supposed to regard it as an absolute tragedy when their rich kid gets drunk with all his friends, crashes their expensive—yet poorly designed—white ship into some rocks, and drowns because they all wear stupidly heavy fancy clothes that just soak up the water. I know it’s vicious, and I’m not proud of the schadenfreude, but maybe that bit should have been in the “what I love about this book” section.

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Parting thoughts:

To me, it feels like some of us have vacillated back to the idea of admiration for “the strong man” of government. Without getting too far in the “well, both sides do it” navel-gazing, because I find when someone wants to tell me about how the left is just as bad as the right, they’re about to reveal that they don’t actually have any real ideas of their own on how to fix things. Yes, both sides of what is widely accepted as the political spectrum have engaged in propping up a “strong man” as head of the government and supreme authority in various places all over the Earth.

Now, that aside, a King is really the ultimate conservative ideal. A man—appointed by God himself—is bestowed magically through birth inheritance with all the skills and wisdom he will ever need to rule his lessers via divine providence. He may be a flawed instrument, but no matter what, no matter how many lies he speaks or how provably wrong he is shown to be, he has to be correct—because God sent him.

There are many, many reasons why I don’t like that prospect. Mainly though, it’s because it’s the same fucking story countless tyrants have told us about why they are in charge and why we, the peasantry, should be just THRILLED to send our sons and daughters to die in some distant land.

I agree with the founding fathers of the United States on this topic. No one should be King. In that name or any other. No one is special from birth. Though that last bit has been a point of lively debate over the years, so much so that we fought a bloody civil war over it.

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